Alex Ross’s thoughtful essay on vicious uses of music left a few interesting stones oddly turned. At the conclusion, he asks us to “renounce the fiction of music’s innocence,” citing the damage that music can do. “Either music affects the world around it or it doesn’t,” he says. It’s a curious dichotomy, as is this one: “It is a mistake to place ‘music’ and ‘violence’ in separate categories…sound itself can be a form of violence.”
John Cage opened up new ways of hearing with his exhortation to find music in all sound. It’s a call to freshen our ears and minds to novel sonic sources and juxtapositions, to listen to everything in our environment with a sense of wonder. Once that step is taken, it is logical to claim there is no distinction between music and sound. Logical, but not accurate, necessary, or even useful.
Sound predates our species, and will certainly survive it. But music is sound that is particularly animated, as far as we know, only by humans. We harness sound to help us survive, to help us make sense of ourselves and our sonic environment. The result of that process is music. Even Cage’s call to listen differently to the sounds of our surroundings is a way of harnessing sound, making them musical.
The distinction helps separate some of the threads of Ross’s argument: certainly music may be blasted through loudspeakers in an effort to cause aural and psychological damage, but this has little to do with the nature of music, but rather the nature of sound amplification. It’s a slight distinction in this case, I believe, but it’s important when that conflation is used to make points about the category of music.
Humans, as all-too-ample evidence shows, are capable of extraordinary cruelty and remarkable tenderness. We are capable of guilt and innocence, if we understand innocence to be freedom from specific wrong. It is difficult to imagine anyone among us who is unremittingly cruel or kind from the instant of conception to death. Those capabilities exist in all of us, to be called forth as frequently as our circumstances, genetic recipes and choices demand.
As music is one of the ways we make sense of our lives, it connects to every facet of our existence. It’s only natural that its uses cover the entire spectrum of human capacity. Music can be innocent; it can be guilty. It can enliven the spirit or it can crush the moral compass. It can’t be everything at once, but it certainly can be pretty much anything anytime.
As for the use of music in torture: the portability of recorded music has encouraged us to create soundtracks for our existence, to lose ourselves in the song or composition that best reflects or directs our mood. As Ross indicates, the specific choices of songs used for torture are often a result of the torturers’ soundtrack needs and preferences, regardless of their effect on the target of the torture. In that sense, this military use of music is more propagandistic than torturous — no less pernicious, perhaps, but nonetheless different – which is where Slayer’s “Angel of Death” is very much in keeping with the spirit of World War One’s “Over There”: its usage is meant to absorb the mind, focus the attention on the task at hand, and deflect thoughts of personal choice, using a musical language that has the urgency of the new. Ross rightly acknowledges music’s ability to invade our thoughts, and our inability to shut it out – no eyelids protect the ear canals.
Much has been made and little understood about the impact music has on words. We are all familiar with songs lyrics that have little effect when spoken. Yet, when these words are intoned in just the right way, with just the right play of pitch and time, their meaning is amplified, even morphed into something unimaginable from the written page. Yet the words remain words, with a literal significance music doesn’t convey on its own.
So when “music” is used in torture, there are three elements in play. There is the volume achieved through amplification, which is distinguishable from music, to the degree that any amplified sound would achieve the same effect. Then there are the words, which frequently convey more of a message to the perpetrators than to the objects of torture. Finally, there is the music, which, in Ross’s most cogent point, is in the ear of the beholder: the cultural associations of the listener determine what is pleasant and what is unbearable. Bel canto, country western, hip hop – each has its rapt listeners, each its cowering cringers.